Leslie Wallenius has long harbored a love of the grand old homes and farms of the Southeast. Although born and raised in Orange County, California, she has childhood memories of traveling through the region.
“When I was a little girl, my parents would bring us back east to visit family,” Leslie says. “I fell in love with the wood floors, the wainscoting and the wonderful porches. I knew that’s where I wanted to be some day.”
So discovering the six bedroom, three-and-a-half bath Victorian mansion known as Rotherwood near Winchester in Clark County was the culmination of years of yearning.
The search began in earnest after her children were grown and out on their own. Leslie and her husband Dale began scouring the countryside in Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky.
Rather than looking for a time-stealing renovation project, they were hoping to find a place where they could relax and enjoy life.
“We found some beautiful properties in Virginia and Tennessee, but so many of them had been cannibalized or somebody had gotten to them in the 1970s and messed them up,” Leslie says. “It’s rare to find something that you don’t need to come in and renovate.”
They were delighted to find the nearly 8,000 square feet of Rotherwood intact and mostly original. The home sits on 25 acres with nary a neighbor in sight.
“Looking out every window all you see is farmland,” Leslie says. “Yet it’s only two miles to the highway (Interstate 64,) so we’re close to the action.”
A KENTUCKY LANDMARK
Rotherwood was built in 1887 by Asa Rodgers Sphar, a wealthy landowner. The Sphar family immigrated to America from Switzerland in 1749, first landing in Philadelphia and then to Culpeper, Virginia, before settling in the Winchester area.
Charles Kerr’s 1922 History of Kentucky mentions Sphar, “…a capable and progressive agriculturist and reliable and substantial citizen… engaged in general farming, tobacco growing, and the raising of cattle, sheep, hogs, horses and mules, and in former years, for about a decade, kept many trotting horses and followed the circuit with some success. Among his best-known animals in the connection were ‘Maggie F.,’ ‘Margaret’ and ‘The Wanderer,’ all bred and trained by him. His present pleasant and commodious home was erected by him in 1887, and is equipped with all modern conveniences, while the other buildings on the property are large and substantial and his improvements are of the best.”
The Kentucky Heritage Council identifies the house as Queen Anne period and has designated Rotherwood a Kentucky Landmark.
Over the years Leslie and Dale have heard many tales about the home, like the one about the original Sphar land grant holder who was murdered by Shawnee while hunting buffalo on the property in the 1700s, and about outlaw Frank James helping to build the parlor fireplace. And there was an illuminating visit from a 90-year-old woman who was married in the home.
“We haven’t done any restoration here,” Leslie says. “Most everything was done before we came. A big project we did was rebuilding and expanding the front porch.”
“There was small front porch that we removed and re-built as a large wrap-around,” Leslie says, then adds with a smile, "because I didn’t come all the way to Kentucky to not have a nice front porch.”
CARETAKERS FOR THE NEXT GENERATION
Decorating and refurnishing Rotherwood has been a dream come true for Leslie, but her immersion in history doesn’t stop at home. She works as a docent at Lexington’s Mary Todd Lincoln House.
“I feel blessed to be there with those folks, giving tours and talking to people from all over the country and the world,” Leslie says. “It’s so important to preserve history.”
Dale is Director of Development for Shriners Hospital for Children.
When Leslie and Dale moved to Kentucky from California eight years ago, they had no grandchildren among their four children.
“We just welcomed our third grandchild,” Leslie said. “They are all in California and it’s great when the kids come here to the farm, but now we want to be showing up at Little League games and all that. It’s going to be a lifestyle change for us.”
“This area around Lexington really hasn’t been discovered yet,” Leslie says. “We’ve seen what happened to Nashville with all the development. It’s like one big freeway. But here there’s a quality of life here you can’t beat. Kentucky, especially the Bluegrass area is an undiscovered haven.”
“We wake up every morning to a beautiful countryside and smack ourselves,” Leslie says. “It just takes your breath away. We’re just caretakers here, preserving the house for the next people.”
This week’s feature home is listed with Zack Davis of Kirkpatrick & Company Real Estate in Lexington. To see more images of this week’s featured home, visit the Homeseller gallery at Kentucky.com.